This is a slightly edited excerpt, translated by Patrick Lyons, from “It concerns everyone” by Robert Linhart, the preface by Albano Cordeiro Why immigration in France: criticism of received ideas (Municipal Office of Migrants of Créteil, 1981), 5-14.
This article contains racist language used against workers in factories in France.
Capitalist organization divides and subdivides industrial labor into stations, gestures, sequences and cycles. Karl Marx qualifies such a division, at the end of his prophetic description in Capital city, as “the assassination of a people”. But it is not only the work that is divided. The labor force too. And it is this same movement of division and subdivision that divides it into qualifications, salary levels, stable and precarious jobs along shifting lines of distribution: adults and young people, men and women, whites or blacks, nationals and foreigners, urban and rural. In all capitalist countries, organizing work means dividing the workers: exploring ever-new “labour reserves”, as one begins to produce on a new mining deposit, wearing down and laminating its dense nuclei.
Because of this trend, the organization of work never stabilizes, even in times when technology remains constant. The workers resist a mode of exploitation which seeks, without limit, to intensify work and to make the work force more lucrative and, for its part, capitalism endeavors to detect and deepen the weak points of the worker resistance. This double pressure produces a shifting and heterogeneous composition of the working class. Sometimes putting entire populations to work has such catastrophic effects – that is, compromising the security of profits – that the system must seek palliative measures against itself. Albano Cordeiro shows how French capitalism turned very early on to foreign labor to curb the demographic plunder of its own working-class families – an entire population devoured and stunted by the labor of women and children – and then to preserve the rural populations whose political support then appeared decisive at the time of the Paris Commune. The class struggle is inscribed in the very formation of the working class, at every moment of its existence.
There are many examples of these recruitment policies that big industry uses to detect and overcome points of resistance. In the 1950s and 1960s, the automotive industry explored the French countryside in search of ideal unskilled workers (OS): weren’t rural youth a malleable workforce, rarely unionized, without a large professional experience, and generally available for the positions advertised? This is the case of Le Mans, Flins, Cléon, etc. Yet it was precisely this young working class fresh out of the western countryside that was to be the most virulent in the movements of 1967 and 1968 – strikes, protests, kidnappings. Would it not be wiser to repopulate the assembly lines with shipments of Algerians, Malians and Turks who, carefully distributed on the production lines and often housed in company hostels, would be subject to the tight control that the former colonial powers, experts in the management of indigenous affairs, you know that so well?
Many immigrants are hired and, thereafter, from 1970-1973, the revolts of unskilled workers multiply. And everywhere, these same immigrants supposed to ensure the calm of production in the workshop were the first to go on strike. How to break this resistance? Racism, police pressure, anti-immigrant procedures. And perhaps also, in the long term, turn in part to other “sources of labour” – for example, what can be said of these old working classes in the North and East devastated by the death of the ‘heavy industry ? Couldn’t we regain their aptitude for hard work? And so on. A machine with several keys: immigrants are part of it, still important despite public discourse on the subject.
In 1977, while the immigrant population in France suffered from the double assault of a racist wave (“ratonnades” and assassinations) and new government provisions, a study was submitted to the Ministry of Labor on the “substitutability of immigrant work”. If we chased away immigrants, would the French take their place in production? This question was asked to a sample of companies. They almost all answered in the negative: we cannot do without “our” immigrants: they accept the toughest jobs, low wages, the most complicated schedules, frequent trips, all kinds of hardships that workers French refuse. Some employers speak of a “critical threshold” beyond which a job is considered “Arab work” or “black work”: they hire a certain number of immigrants in a workshop or for a type of position and do not worry more to improve working conditions. After a while, the French refuse to work there – it has become an “immigrant sector”. Assembly lines, foundries, presses, painting, cleaning. It is not difficult to reconstruct the map of these professions: rhythms, fatigue, heat, benzolism and other discomforts, noise and deafness…
Friedrich Engels said that the contempt for servile manual labor transmitted by Antiquity would persist long after, like a poisoned needle, to corrupt and chain the productive systems that followed. In some of its characteristics, immigrant labor – and especially the modern offshoot of colonial labor, which constitutes an important part of it – plays a comparable, devaluing role. In French factories, the Algerian war never really ended on the assembly lines, and former colonial officers, integrated into management positions, still strive to avenge the loss of the empire by “making the metics sweat”. Immigrant work, “inferior” work. Assembly lines, construction work, cleaning and maintenance of heavy industry sites (increasingly, petrochemical, steel and cement companies are outsourcing much of the work to smaller companies; so many functions that “leave” the central company and are divided between the control centers, temporary work and various contracts, for which immigrant labor is an essential reservoir).
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A dividing line thus produces, within the working class, a subordinate proletariat, and this division is inscribed in the labor process itself. Only, on this side of the internal border, there are not only immigrants: women, young people and delinquents constitute other components of this productive population. And shifts can arise in the logic of sorting: between a black sweeper and a housekeeper; between an Arab worker and a delinquent minor sentenced to temporary work by a juvenile judge; between the undocumented Turkish garment worker and the old woman who makes buttonholes at home; employers can have their choice.
Sometimes subtle rules of alignment are established – it is a “feminine” work, when it is rather “Maghreb”, etc. unskilled workers according to their country of origin. From one population to another, there are shifts, but the main source of this subaltern proletariat remains immigration. And it should not lose its advantageous characteristics. The bosses insist on this point. Immigrants must remain mobile, not too organized. As Albano Cordeiro shows, the anti-immigration policy of the 1970s sought to restore these characteristics of “good immigration”, rather than eliminate it altogether.
For a whole section of the industry, the good immigrant is the “fresh” immigrant: mobile, not attached to a family, nor integrated into a trade union movement (strong, free arms, medically selected arms, as Albano describes Cordeiro). If too many immigrants lose the ideal characteristics, we will deport them to import new ones. But, for other industrial work, the accumulated experience of more established immigrant workers can be useful: a base of knowledge acquired on the assembly line or in workshops – paid sparingly and without recognition of qualifications – is not negligible (this massive under-qualification of In South Africa, it appears in its most developed form: black immigrant labor essentially keeps the mines in operation, but all qualified positions are officially awarded to whites, even though the black workers actually do the work – and the incumbent official just watches over them). Finally, in a period of demographic stagnation – currently the case in France – the basic supply of young people to be “Frenchified” offered by the “second generation” is considerable, especially since cultural and educational segregation channels it towards labor reserves. -work at low cost.